26 September 2023

Analysis: An old photo from 2019 Hong Kong protests circulates in Myanmar with the same false claim

Annie Lab’s analysis shows that the picture in question shows a protester with an air gun, not an armed undercover Hong Kong police officer instigating violence.

On March 16, a Facebook post claimed in Burmese that using undercover police officers dressed as protesters was a tactic adopted by China during the 2019 anti-government protests in Hong Kong and it could be happening in Myanmar, too.

The image used in the post shows an individual in Hong Kong who appears to be throwing a Molotov cocktail. A holstered sidearm can be seen in the photos and it is circled in yellow, indicating that it is a weapon used by police officers and therefore, the individual is an undercover police officer pretending to be a protester.

It was a screen capture of a tweet in English posted two days earlier with the same claim, warning people in Myanmar to watch out for the same strategy by the military.

The Facebook post has around 10,000 shares, 8,200 reactions and 88 comments. The original tweet was later deleted, but it had 277 retweets, 305 likes and 33 comments before it disappeared.

Annie Lab could not verify whether or not the military junta is using undercover soldiers in the ongoing civil disobedience movement in the country but we can prove that the picture in the social media posts does not show either an undercover officer in Hong Kong or a gun used by the police force.

A screenshot from Twitter where the protester can be seen lighting and throwing a molotov cocktail.
The protester can be seen lighting and throwing a molotov cocktail.


A screenshot from Facebook in Burmese that posts the screenshot from Twitter with the same claim.
The post also warns protesters in Myanmar that the Myanmar army may incite conflict while undercover amongst protesters.

The photos used in the claim have a Getty Images watermark that credits AFP photographer Anthony Wallace, who took the two pictures on Aug. 31, 2019, in front of the Hong Kong Government Headquarters in Admiralty.

A side by side comparison of the pictures from Twitter and the original pictures on getty images.
Wallace referred to the individual as a “protester” in his caption.

In the first picture, the sidearm can be seen at an angle. We were able to magnify the image below. 

A magnified image of the protestor's holstered sidearm.
The magnification allows us to identify some features like the brown color of the handle.

In the second picture (seen below), the sidearm is in full view. Since it is holstered, only the handle is visible when magnified. When rotated, we can see that there is a protrusion above the handle. The handle and the frame are brown while the slide is black.

A graphic that has labelled the individual features of the magnified sidearm including the frame, the shape of the handle / grip and the holster.
The graphic above elaborates on the side arm’s different features that we can isolate from the picture.

On Oct. 7, 2019, the then News Lens editor Cheng Ka-yue fact-checked the claim in Chinese and came to a conclusion that the sidearm was an air gun, a type called BB gun or airsoft gun. 

The article features a photo of the same protester holding the gun in hand captured by Hong Kong Free Press photographer May James. 

A magnification of both the holster strapped to the protestor's side and the sidearm that they are holding in their hands as they kneel on the ground.
The sidearm can be seen, out of its holster which is strapped to the side of the protester.

Annie Lab team believes that the air gun in question is a Glock 18C Airsoft gun, pictured below.

A side by side comparison of the sidearm and the Glock 18C from Airsoft Guns that highlights similar features.
The Glock 18C gas airsoft pistol, manufactured by Airsoft Guns, has similar features as the air gun in the HKFP picture.

Cheng’s analysis also points to the transparent bottle-like container and mentions that it is a BB gun pellet container. 

We are able to magnify the image below and compare it to known BB gun bottle containers from Asian airsoft gun pellet manufacturer BB King to determine that it is indeed a bottle container for pellets. 

The protestor was holding a BB gun pellet bottle while kneeling that is zoomed in on and compared to similar pellet bottle containers from manufacturer BB King.
The structure, lid and stopper of the bottle in the picture and standard BB gun pellet bottle containers have great similarities.

A livestream of the Aug. 31, 2019 protest from Apple Daily HK has also captured the protester with the air gun starting at 03:33:40.

A screenshot of the Apple Daily livestream at 03:33:40 that marks the position of the protestor in the crowd and zooms in on the BB gun pellet bottle container on the ground next to them.
In the video, the BB gun pellet bottle container can be seen on the ground next to the protestor.

At 03:34:03, the protester is seen again in the video. 

Another screenshot from the Apple Daily livestream at 03:34:03 that zooms into where the protestor is firing the air gun into the air. Photographers from other media outlets are surrounding them taking pictures.
The protester can be seen firing the air gun into the air as photographers from other media outlets take pictures.

On Sep. 1, 2019, after the claim about the undercover officer instigating conflict between the riot police and protesters was widely shared in Hong Kong, local online publication Dimsum Daily reported that the Civil Human Rights Front had confirmed that the sidearm was indeed an air gun.

The local human rights group referenced the Telegram channel @antiextraditionverifiednews, which spoke to those at the scene and was able to confirm that it was an air gun, adding that the person who carried it during the said protest was a member of a gun club. 

In a press conference, the Hong Kong Police Force’s Senior Superintendent Yu Kai-jun said the sidearm pictured with the protester is not a standard-issued firearm for the Hong Kong Police Force.

In a Now News video,  a screenshot of which can be seen  below, she can be heard at 1:43 saying, “The sidearm shown in the picture is not what we, the force, use.”

A screenshot from a Now News report about the Hong Kong Police's statement about undercover officers firing two live rounds into the air in Victoria Park as warning shots on Aug. 31, 2019.
The statement was made during a press conference about police officers firing two live rounds into the air in Victoria Park as warning shots on Aug. 31, 2019.

An article from the Hong Kong Police Force’s magazine in 2007 and photos in 2019 show them using different kinds of firearms: the Smith & Wesson Model 10 .38 caliber revolver, the Glock 17 9 mm Luger pistol and the SIG Sauer P250

Annie Lab found news photos of the respective guns being used by the police officers below. 

Side by side comparisons of pictures where the Hong Kong Police use their standard issue firearms and the original listings on manufacturers' websites.
There have been documented uses of the above three firearms in HK Government by photojournalists and in Reuters reports and in the Hong Kong Police Force’s magazine Offbeat as far back as 2007.

While it has been confirmed by the Hong Kong Police Force that some police officers were undercover in the 2019 anti-government protests, they have denied any involvement of the People’s Liberation Army from Mainland China or any other Chinese organization in their actions. 

On social media, posts about China’s alleged involvement in the Myanmar coup in February 2021 have gained a lot of traction in Myanmar.